Thursday, April 28, 2011

History Surrounds Us

When we think of history, we think of the past and, often, big and glorious events or eras. Sometimes what we know about history is limited to what someone else has told us, usually in a book or in a video, or what someone has displayed in a museum, and we have to rely on their research and conclusions to inform our own.

But there is a way to look at history with much fresher, first-person eyes. It's about seeing our world and how it evolved.

John Stilgoe, a historian who teaches the History of Landscape at Harvard University, says:
Education ought to work outdoors, in the rain and in the sleet, in the knife-like heat of a summertime Nebraska wheat field, along a half-abandoned railroad track on a dark autumn afternoon, on the North Atlantic in winter. All that I do is urge my students and readers to look around, to realize how wonderfully rich is the built environment, even if the environment is only a lifeboat close-hauled in a chiaroscuro sea.
In his book, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, he suggests getting out of our everyday routines and going for a walk or a bike ride. All you need to see your local world in a different light are your eyes, your feet, and your curiosity. It's about noticing. 

An online review states that Stilgoe's philosophy... 
centers around the idea that simply noticing the things normally taken for granted will teach us a great deal about the human-built environment we inhabit. Everything has a lesson, from the direction and type of power lines above the streets, to the shape and maker of man-hole covers, to the direction and width of city streets. Paying attention to these lessons can help us learn how our cities took shape and what they looked like before cars and electricity and other "improvements" of modern life.
I don't think you need Stilgoe's book to slow down and notice the details (it seems to be out of print anyway) and wonder about them. But he has an interesting way of thinking about history, which makes it more immediate and relevant to our lives. It's right in front of us.

The Harvard Gazette has a video of John Stilgoe giving a tour of Harvard Yard, exposing many secrets that most people would overlook completely. (I like his bow tie.) It will give you a good idea of his approach.

And that is, get out there, look around, be curious, ask questions, wonder, and explore.

As Stilgoe says, "Exploration is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun."